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Life at the Bonner Check Station 1998

by James Jason Jonkel
Wildlife Technician
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Game Range Column
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
January 7, 1999


A new year begins! I sit here now dreaming of all the winter field work ahead, but I still find myself thinking about this last hunting season. The harvest was low at the big game check station on Highway 200 just outside of Bonner, Montana. The snow never got deep enough to bring the game down to the winter ranges and the number of hunters were lower than normal. As a result, there were a lot of exasperated hunters rolling through the two lanes at the check point.

Even so, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) still gathered information on age and sex structure from 111 elk, 147 mule deer, 315 white-tailed deer, four black bear and three moose. There were a total of 7,736 people counted that hunted in the upper reaches of the Blackfoot River in Hunting Districts 280, 281, 282, 283, 284, 285, 290, 291, 292 and 293. (The check station was open the first eight days of hunting season and on the weekends for the rest of the season.)

As I sliced the cheeks of the hunter's animals to look at tooth wear for aging purposes, I listened to tales of long shots, quick responses, dumb luck, and hard work. In the three years that I have worked at the Bonner Check Station I've seen a lot of different faces, and it's worth noting that year after year, I always see the same people coming through with elk and deer. Most of the successful hunters work hard, and in the end they are usually rewarded with a rack to put on their wall and meat to put in their freezer. There was a face this year, however, that will stick with me through several seasons.

The check station is located directly across the road from the Weimer Place. I was just standing there in the cold eyeing the Weimer Family's "meat pole" when I heard a truck pull into the "Successful Lane." That particular "meat pole" is known throughout Western Montana and has been the envy of many a hunter. I remember pressing my nose to the car window in awe when Dad and I used to go through the Bonner Check Station in the early 1970's. I don't believe that a hunting season has gone by in the last 30 years when there was not at least a couple of elk and three or four deer hanging from that "meat pole." I've had to nod at that pole many a time after some hunter has just complained about the lack of game. I just smile and turn my eye toward the Weimer's and say, "You just have to know some good areas."

I turned around and walked toward the vehicle. Everyone in the truck was, of course, gawking at the "meat pole." "What did you get?" I said. The driver got out and walked with me to the back of the vehicle and asked, "Are doe mule deer legal on the Blackfoot?"

I kind of stumbled, raised my shoulders and cleared my throat after muttering something about "that would depend on whether or not you have an Antlerless B Tag for this area." For the last two years the hunting of doe mule deer and white-tailed deer has been extremely restricted. The winter of 1996-1997 was an exceptionally hard winter and large numbers of deer "winter-killed." As a result, FWP closed down the either-sex seasons in certain areas around Region 2 and cut back the number of Antlerless B Tags issued to hunters for a second deer. The Montana Big Game Hunting Regulations states this clearly, but every so often someone fails to read the "regs." "Well, you might want to check this out then," he said as he opened the back door.

I reached in and pulled aside the tarp. AHHHHH! Suddenly before me mouth wide open, eyes glazed, hair matted was the monster. Her clammy hands grabbed my wrist and her sharp nails tore at my flesh. She grabbed my coat and started pulling me in. Her wild laugh pierced my ear drums, and her teeth seemed to glitter with saliva. With a burst of adrenaline and super-human strength, I grabbed the edge of the truck and yanked myself free. She followed. I stepped back aghast. She was coming for me. I turned to flee and only then noticed that I had quite an audience.

The rest of the check station crew was snickering, and several vehicles in the "Unsuccessful Lane" contained people who looked like they were enjoying the scene far too much. I turned to the little girl. She was about 12 years old, had reddish hair and freckles. Her expression was mischievous and her body was jerking convulsively with laughter.

Her father patted me on the back. He was having trouble controlling his laughter too. So was the woman who had just gotten out of the passenger's door. "I just want you to know that I had nothing to do with this," he said. "It was her idea and she's been planning it since the last time we came through here."

The mother helped her giggling daughter into the front seat and the father hopped back into his truck. When he closed the door, I could still hear the little girl's muffled laugh. As they pulled away, she turned her head and got one last look at me. She was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

"Well she certainly enjoyed that," I said to nobody in particular, striving to salvage some dignity. I walked over to one of the students and borrowed a clip board. In the upper right hand corner of the data sheet I carefully wrote: "little girl; white Jeep Cherokee; MT 4P 6218A." "Yup," I said, "I'm afraid she'll be telling that story over and over again for a long time."

Well, needless to say, I'll be watching for that little girl. Every year something happens at the check station that puts a smile on my face. I've made a lot of new friends, and I often run into some old buddies from high school or college. The people I work with make the long hours more than bearable. I've really enjoyed working with the wildlife biology students who help FWP gather the harvest data every year, and I have to let all you hunters know that some very good meals have been cooked up and eaten in that little trailer house at the old weigh station beside Highway 200, opposite the Weimer Place.

Happy New Year!

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